A Champion of Decency

By Sally Jenkins
Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Tony Dungy made winning seem like a good deed. That's his real achievement as an NFL coach, the one he's proudest of, as opposed to any claim to being the first this or that. His bequest to the league includes his Super Bowl-victor's role in prodding a bunch of reluctant owners toward social justice, but mainly he'll be known for plain decency, the fact he paired the words "champion" and "good guy" in the same sentence.

It sounds like a small thing, but it's not. The qualities that make great coaches are often negative: They tend to be obsessive workaholics with controlling natures, whose dictatorial traits get stronger as pressure mounts, and the worst are snap-jawed tyrants.

Dungy has his imperfections, and he's as intense a gamesman as anyone, but he always fought that magnetized pull called loss of perspective. He coached from a place of basic kindness, treating every opponent as a friend, and the game as a game, even under duress.

"No excuses, no explanations," was his mantra. Even in the midst of the Colts' Super Bowl run in 2006-07, his outward disposition was that of a neighbor chatting over his back fence.

"I really wanted to show people you can win all kinds of ways," Dungy said then. "I always coached the way I've wanted to be coached. . . . For guys to have success where it maybe goes against the grain, against the culture."

How often do you see an NFL owner in tears? Yet there was the Colts' Jim Irsay, a middle-aged mogul weeping openly as he talked about how Dungy "pushed me as a man and made me a better person."

"Certainly in our business winning is critical, but when you win, how will you be remembered?" Irsay asked rhetorically.

Among other things, Dungy will be remembered as the first black coach to win a Super Bowl, but more than that, as a man of immense patience -- and persistence. He was the youngest assistant coach in league history when Chuck Noll hired him in 1981 at age 25 to work for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But it would take him 15 years to become a head coach, an injustice he somehow dealt with charitably.

Once he got his chance at Tampa Bay in 1996, he did nothing but win. Between Tampa and Indianapolis he set the modern NFL record for consecutive playoff appearances, with 10, and only twice in his 13-year career did his teams fail to make the postseason. He's the first NFL head coach to defeat all 32 teams in the league. And he's the only coach to amass six straight seasons of 12 wins or more. His regular season winning percentage of .759 with the Colts is higher than that of Vince Lombardi or Don Shula.

His personal breakthrough wasn't enough for Dungy; along the way he tried to uplift other coaches as well. He pushed for the Rooney Rule, requiring teams to interview minority coaches for jobs, and he grew a significant coaching tree, helping Herman Edwards, Lovie Smith and Mike Tomlin ascend to head positions alongside him.

There was a fundamental generosity to everything Dungy did in football. He made no secret of the fact he was a devoted evangelical who viewed NFL coaching as something of a pulpit and a ministry. But he wasn't a holier-than-thou proselytizer or a do-right; he just lived his words, working with a prison ministry and mentoring program in the offseason.

With his players, he always approached the job as an educator, like the schoolteacher's son he is. Dungy also is the son of a soldier -- his late father flew with the Tuskegee Airmen.

The only real legacy Dungy sought to leave, he said at his farewell news conference yesterday evening, was as "someone who helped our players at every stop. If I was going to hope, it would be something like that, and very little talk about what we did on the field."

Half the time as an audience we're confused about what we want from the NFL. Do we want it to be purely an entertainment, on the level of a circus, or do we want it to be a repository of societal values? With Dungy, we didn't have to choose -- he tried to give us both. "I think my legacy will be more of how we did it," he said. He strove "to show that you can treat people right, be professional, do it with class, and still win."

It's typical of Dungy to walk away because he feels he owes something to others. It's obviously not an easy decision for him -- he's only 53, and the Colts remain a perennial contender with a reigning league MVP in quarterback Peyton Manning.

"It's hard to go out on top," Dungy said. "It's fun to win. When you're winning you don't want to stop."

But it's time for payback. He told some of his players he feels "a higher calling," referring to his ministry work, and he has been a commuter husband and father. His family lives in Tampa because it's the best place for his five children -- he suffered a devastating loss of another son, James, to an apparent suicide in 2005 -- and he wants to spend more time with them and with wife Lauren.

"I've got a responsibility to be home a little bit more, to be available a little bit more, and to do some things to make our country better," he said.

Coaches retire all the time, with fatigue-sunken eyes and frayed temperaments, only to un-retire when they find that they miss the intensity of the job. But Dungy doesn't seem like the sort who will miss the seasonal highs.

In his retirement, as with everything else, there was a sense of emotional integrity.

"I have a real peace about it," he said.

He earned it.

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